The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a moratorium on some evictions earlier this month because of the coronavirus pandemic, but many renters don’t know how to take advantage of it, and its implementation in Baton Rouge appears to vary by courtroom.
Wanita Knox knew nothing about the moratorium when her landlord attempted to evict her on Friday. The 47-year-old lost her job in customer service in July and has since watched her life spiral downward. Lately, she's had trouble finding enough money for food, and on Thursday, her car was repossessed.
Sitting behind a plexiglass barrier in Baton Rouge City Court, Knox battled back tears in during testimony in her eviction hearing: "I lost my job due to COVID...that's the only reason I haven't paid my rent."
In some courtrooms, that testimony would've been enough to qualify for protections under the CDC order. But, in Baton Rouge City Court, judges are only enforcing the moratorium if a tenant brings it up on their own as part of their defense, said Elzie Alford, the court's judicial administrator.
The order protects tenants from eviction for non-payment of rent until the end of the year. But to qualify, tenants like Knox must proactively sign a "declaration" and submit it to their landlord.
In the document, they must say they have an income of less than $99,000, have made their best efforts to obtain all government assistance available, and have suffered a substantial loss in income during the pandemic, among other conditions.
Knox eventually worked out a compromise with her landlord, but until she submits the declaration, she's vulnerable to eviction.
The CDC issued the moratorium to head off a wave of mass evictions and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Tenants must certify that, if evicted, they would likely become homeless, or need to move into a residence shared by other people who live in close quarters.
Housing advocates say they haven't seen a significant uptick in evictions in Baton Rouge since the start of the pandemic. That's thanks, in part, to the CDC moratorium and now-expired protections from the CARES Act earlier this summer for tenants in federally subsidized housing.
Some advocates also credit Baton Rouge's landlords, who they say are more forgiving than landlords in other places.
"I think there's a big difference between Baton Rouge landlords and New Orleans landlords," said Skyler Williams, an attorney who offers pro-bono legal counsel at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. "I think our landlords are more amicable and less aggressive. They try to meet tenants halfway."
Evictions in East Baton Rouge Parish are handled by either the Baton Rouge City Court or one of six Justices of the Peace, depending on where one lives. Julia Jack, another attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, said by their very nature, Justices of the Peace "kind of do whatever they want" and there's rarely any consistency between them.
At a recent eviction hearing, Justice of the Peace Jerry Arbour determined a tenant qualified for protection under the moratorium even though he didn't have a signed declaration in hand. Arbour later said he decided to have mercy on the tenant, who was blind, at the discretion of the court.
"I could’ve been a horse's patootie and say, 'Well you didn’t file a declaration so you’re not covered because that’s what the order says,' but I didn’t," Arbour said.
Arbour said its important tenants understand that the moratorium does not mean they're off the hook entirely from paying rent. The order requires tenants make timely partial payments that are as close to full payments as possible — and that, in 2021, they may be liable for the rent that they didn't pay in the preceding months.
"That's like a big boulder on Jan. 1 that everybody's staring at if they don't pay something," Arbour said.
Steven Sanders, another Justice of the Peace, said that if a tenant gives a landlord the declaration at any point in the process, the eviction will come to a "screeching halt." That's including up until the "11th hour" when the constable signs the property back over to the landlord.
Cashauna Hill, the executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said the federal government did not give “uniform guidance” on how to implement the CDC order. So local officials have been forced to fill in the gaps, resulting in a “myriad of results and procedures across the country.”
She criticized the federal government for releasing the order without more guidance.
“If they’re going to start the process, it actually needs to be followed through with,” Hill said. “It’s not acceptable that this order might vary from courtroom to courtroom or community to community.”
Beth Miles, the president of the Baton Rouge Apartment Association, said most landlords she knows aren't "itching to get rid of folks." She said they understand what their tenants are going through and are trying to be accommodating.
Still, she said the moratorium has been particularly rough on smaller landlords, who may have only a handful of units. She said that without additional assistance from the federal government, she doesn't know how renters or tenants will survive.
"I think there's a misconception that all landlords have these big deep pockets and that's not true," Miles said. "We can go out of business pretty quickly."
For now, Knox will be able to remain in her apartment. She's slated to start a new job on Oct. 1, though she still has a backlog of bills looming over her.
She said since she was laid off, she's only received $70 a week in unemployment assistance, a sliver of the state's benefits. She spent three hours on the phone with the state trying to understand why and was told that the she was accidentally overpaid a few years ago during another brief spell of unemployment.
"It's depressing to think about the future," Knox said. "I just have to live minute by minute, hour by hour."